Artist designs phoenix sculpture from donated keys of homes destroyed in the Paradise Camp Fire
(CNN) -- A woman from Paradise, California has created a phoenix sculpture from thousands of donated keys to places destroyed in California's deadliest wildfire last November.
Jessie Mercer, a 34-year-old art therapist and trauma counselor, designed the 800-pound depiction of the mythological bird that rises from ashes. The sculpture holds more than 18,000 keys to homes, churches, schools, businesses and cars, including some that belonged to people who died in the Camp Fire.
The blaze killed 85 people and burned more than 153,000 acres.
When Mercer's father fled the fire to her apartment in Chico, just 10 minutes outside of Paradise, she saw him pull out the keys to his house.
"In that moment, I kind of realized that he wasn't alone and thousands of my neighbors were doing that same exact thing," Mercer told CNN. "Everyone was like, "Wow, I have keys to my shop, my house, my car. And it's all gone.' "
The artist, who was born in Wyoming and moved to Paradise at 15, thought to collect the keys two days after the fire turned Paradise into a pile of ashes.
"I needed to make something to put us back together, and the keys were the only thing we still had in common since we lost everything else."
Putting the pieces back together
After recovering from severe neurological issues that left her bedridden and suffering from seizures when she was 31, Mercer discovered her love for art. She and her father, a goldsmith, began sharing an art studio, which also burned in the fire.
With her father's encouragement, Mercer put out a Facebook post asking people to mail her their keys, drop them off at a location, or meet up and give them to her in person.
"I just told people, you don't have to carry around this totem of sorrow that makes you sad every time you look at it," Mercer said. "Let me transform it into something comforting."
And just three days after the fire, she received her first key.
Mercer decided to get on YouTube and teach herself how to weld. After collecting enough metal and keys -- and without drawing a sketch or making a plan -- Mercer simply "followed her heart" and designed the phoenix.
For a year, Mercer spent hours in a small room in her apartment, building the mythical fire bird to help her community heal.
After driving back and forth for 19,000 miles, picking up metals, meeting other victims of the Camp Fire, and collecting keys dropped off at 13 locations across five towns including Paradise, Mercer's project was finally complete.
Unveiling the art
Exactly one year after the fire devoured the town in a matter of hours, Mercer unveiled her Phoenix Key Project on Friday during a commemoration ceremony at Paradise's Butte Resiliency Center to a crowd of thousands.
The resiliency and resource center will be transformed into a place designated for the healing and growth of Paradise and its community. There, residents can "get their home plans checked, their surveys done, and rebuild questions answered," Mercer said.
The sculpture will be displayed at the center. And in honor of her gift to the city, Mercer was presented a key to the town of Paradise.
"It's the first ever time they've ever given the key to anyone," Mercer told CNN. "It's so cool. I don't care about anything else. I have the key to Paradise."
While Mercer's idea was to unite the community through her art, she ended up bringing people together back in Paradise.
"It was powerful to know that I bought people back home, even for a day. I was so proud of them for coming. The streets were full, the parking lots. It was thousands of people and the crowds were roaring."
A year of 'indescribable emotions'
Mercer said that taking a year to meet other victims of the fire and build the phoenix helped her process her emotions and sense of loss.
"I lost my town, too," she said. "It was being a part of something, but also being a vessel that created it. We did this, not just me."
While channeling her pain through art in hopes of finding a way to "balance the pain and anger" that her community was feeling after the tragic annihilation of their town, Mercer said it wasn't easy.
She called it the hardest year of her life. A year she will never forget.
"Meeting people meant hearing every story," Mercer told CNN.
"Getting letters in the mail meant reading their stories. All of them were testaments: 'Here's the key to my life. Here's the key to where I had Thanksgiving for 32 years.' There's a gravity to knowing that everything you're holding is so full of memories and legacies and heartbreak."
Mercer became close to many of the donors. She recalls pastors crying while they handed over keys to their churches. One teacher gave her the key to the classroom where she taught for 40 years.
A young girl sent her a key to her diary and told Mercer "to keep her secrets safe."
"When I got all these keys, when I put them on, I didn't care about who was who," Mercer said. "There was no color, there was no age, there was no creed. It was just so transcending to bring people together and take them out of all their stereotypes."
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